Age-Old Obsession with Planet Mars Culminates in Multiple Missions
In an extraordinary confluence of events, three nations from three separate regions of the globe—the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates—launched spacecraft headed for planet Mars within a 12-day period in July 2020. Earth and Mars were aligned perfectly for a complication-free trip during this window, and consequently the UAE’s orbiter probe Hope, China’s orbiter-rover Tianwen-1, and the United States’ rover Perseverance all began their long, arduous seven-month journeys to the ever-alluring red planet Mars at nearly the same time.
Illustration showing the landing event of NASA’s Perseverance on planet Mars on February 18, 2021. (JPL-Caltech / NASA)
NASA Planet Mars Landing Date Finally Arrives
Despite being the last of the three to achieve Mars orbit, the Daily Mail reports that the Perseverance will be the first to actually touch down on the Martian surface. On Thursday, February 18 2021, the Perseverance, a car-sized Mars rover specifically designed for this mission, will ascend through the Martian atmosphere at the scorching speed of 12,000 miles per hour, relying on its supersonic parachuting system to quickly decelerate and facilitate a soft and safe landing. The landing event is available to watch in a live video feed from NASA.
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Over the course of its two-year mission, the Perseverance will roam across the landscape of the crater Jezero, which was located at the bottom of a lake 3.5 billion years ago. The Perseverance will be collecting rock and soil samples from planet Mars for future retrieval by another rover, but will send back the results of its initial chemical analysis in real-time for immediate evaluation. The rover will also be taking tons of pictures and shooting miles of video footage of the surrounding geography, assisted by its high-flying drone-helicopter companion called Ingenuity.
Most notably, the Perseverance will be looking for signs of life on planet Mars, in the form of chemical elements, isotopes, or molecules that might have been produced by now-extinct microbes or other living creatures in the past. The Chinese Tianwen-1 rover will join the search for life when it touches down in May of this year, reports the Daily Mail, while the UAE orbiter named Hope will do its part by exploring the Martian atmosphere in an attempt to reconstruct its past and chart its evolution. As dead as Mars appears now, in the search for evidence of life, hope springs eternal.
Possible route planned for the Perseverance rover as it explores the Jezero Crater on planet Mars. (JPL-Caltech / NASA)
Planet Mars in Myth, History, and Science
This unprecedented exploratory triangulation of our neighbor planet is the culmination of a historic fascination with planet Mars that began centuries ago, in a past so distant that it tests the limits of our imagination. The ancient Babylonians probably weren’t the first people to note the presence of Mars in its skies. But they were the first society in recorded history to assign Mars a specific role in their cosmological or mythological constructs (in the third millennium BC). They identified this bright slowly moving object with Nergal, their god of war and conflict.
This set a pattern that was followed by others. The ancient Greeks also associated Mars with their god of war, Ares, and it was the Romans who actually labeled the planet “Mars” in honor of their god of war. Other ancient civilizations, including the Chinese, the Maya, and the aborigines of Australia, also watched Mars closely and pondered its meaning. They measured the regularity and predictability of its movements, and assigned it to a place in their mythologies based on what seemed to be indications of intelligent design or behavior.
The Maya, for example, associated the red planet with a supernatural being that scholars refer to as the “Mars Beast,” which in drawings was represented as a gigantic macaw-like creature with a long spiraling nose. The shape of this creature seemed to reflect the shape of Mars’s long periodic orbit through the Mayan skies, and it was seen as a watchdog or guardian that would protect the inhabitants of Earth from misfortune.
Among ancient aboriginal communities, identifications of Mars differed. Some groups claimed Mars was one of the Moon’s wives, while in other aboriginal stories Mars and Venus were said to be the eyes of an unimaginably vast sky creature that was watching developments on Earth carefully.
The ancient Greeks associated Mars with their god of war, Ares. (Public domain)
Scientific Study of Planet Mars
In 1610, Galileo ended the speculation about Mars’ true identity when he proved it was a separate and distinct planet, like Earth but with its own unique characteristics. Naturally, this invited speculation that the planet might be inhabited, and that Martians might be gazing at Earth and wondering about us at the same time we were looking up and wondering about them.
In the mid-1800’s, telescopic technology advanced to the point where it was possible to see the features of the Martian surface when it was at its closest approach. In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli, a famed Italian astronomer, made a drawing of the Martian surface based on his observations that captured the imagination of the public. His hand-drawn map portrayed the surface of Mars as complex and exceedingly Earth-like, with continents and oceans and straight lines he identified as canals.
It was Schiaparelli who inspired American astronomer Percival Lowell to build his own observatory in Arizona so he could launch a more extensive telescopic exploration of the Martian surface in the 1890s. Finding even more canals than Schiaparelli, Lowell became convinced that Mars was inhabited by skilled engineers who were busy transforming the surface of the planet to make it more green and fertile.
In the early 20 th century, advances in telescopic technology proved that Lowell had misidentified natural features, and that the ‘canals’ he saw was entirely in his imagination. NASA’s Mariner probes began arriving in Martian orbit in the 1960s, and the close-up pictures they beamed back proved once and for all that the Martian landscape was cold, arid, and dead, and wholly unsuitable for life.
Search for Companionship in a Lonely Universe
The latest scientific discoveries have confined many myths about Mars to the dustbin of history. But they haven’t ended our collective fascination with the planet, nor terminated our search for signs of life on its now-barren surface.
In the past, Mars had a much thicker and more chemically complex atmosphere. That atmosphere moderated temperatures enough to allow liquid water to flow and collect on the Martian surface. The current search for signs of past life on Mars is motivated by this knowledge, and modern planetary science has now become an ally in this search rather than its nemesis. The specific nature of our obsession with Mars, and the projections we make based on the convergence between its movements and characteristics and our belief systems, have changed radically over the centuries.
Our ardor for discovering the truth about Mars has not been dimmed by the passage of time, nor by our reliance on science rather than mythology as our guiding societal narrative. Ultimately, our determined quest to unlock the secrets of Martian history and comprehend its implications may be inspired by a deep-seated need to prove that we are truly not alone, in the universe or even in our own solar system.
Top image: Illustration of the NASA Perseverance rover firing up its descent engines as it approaches the surface of planet Mars. Source: JPL-Caltech / NASA
By Nathan Falde